Here’s what quitting booze looks like, according to every film and TV show that’s ever depicted it. (I challenge you to think of one that doesn’t show it this way—I can’t).

Step 1: Person starts having terrifying nights of the soul with their drinking. Sneaking secret drinks, hiding bottles, getting the shakes, boozing in the morning.
Step 2: Person experiences a rock bottom the magnitude of flying a plane in total a blackout (like in Flight) or destroying sister’s wedding cake (à la 28 days).
Step 3: Person tearfully admits they’re an alcoholic and then spends big chunks of their time in recovery meetings.

This is very much what my quitting story looked like when I got sober five years ago. Except I didn’t fly a plane or trash a cake. I just quietly felt a black hole inside me grow, and started researching suicide.

Back in 2013, when I first sobbed the words “I think I’m an alcoholic” to my father (two decades sober himself) over the phone, I felt a mixture of crushing personal failure, but also monumental relief. The failure feeling was because of the word “alcoholic,” a word I had heard used as a slur my entire life. The relief was because I no longer had to lie or pretend to be okay when I really, really wasn’t.

‘My name is Catherine…’

I started attending a lot of A.A. and subsequently telling everyone I was a recovering alcoholic. I took on the word with shame, reluctance, acceptance, and then gusto because I thought it was the key that unlocked the kingdom of alcohol-freedom.

But now, I wonder if it was necessary to use that label at all. In retrospect, I could’ve just said, “Alcohol is making me deeply unhappy and I’m addicted to it,” and it would have had the same result.

Acceptance of addiction, sorted.
Denial, pierced.
Lies, stopped.
Relief, granted.
Recovery process, started.
Shame, unnecessary.

I wonder if I merely thought the word was the key because I’d been shown and told that it was a crucial part of the process in a million different, subliminal ways. And my own journey to sobriety had me obediently and exactly re-enacting the narrative arc of “car-crash human quits drinking by calling themselves an alcoholic.”

As the years go by, though, I see no hard evidence that calling oneself an “alcoholic” helps people actually achieve sobriety; instead, only evidence that labels, including “addict,” perpetuate the negative stigma. I’m starting to question this part of the process I’d accepted as hard fact.

Two of my best sober friends have more than five years in recovery, just like me. But they rejected the alcoholic label right from the very beginning. As the author of a book, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, I’ve received letters from thousands of readers who don’t meet the classification of alcoholism or call themselves alcoholics. Yet they’ve struggled with drinking, have quit, and found utter delight at the life on the other, sober side.

The latest thing that has made me look askance at the word? This quote, from the former Chief Drugs Advisor of the UK, Professor David Nutt:

“We know that a third of the people coming into the liver unit with alcohol-related liver damage do not meet the criteria for alcoholism.”

So, 33% of people who are chronically ill from their drinking, are not official “alcoholics.” Mind-boggling, huh? It just goes to show that you don’t need to be an “alcoholic” for drinking to cause your death.

Addiction Isn’t Black and White

Addiction is a spectrum, not a dichotomous experience,  and it’s about time we all recognized that. Even if you’re a 5 or a 6 on that 1 to 10 spectrum, rather than an “official alcoholic” rating of 7 or up, alcohol can still trash your body, life, career, and relationships. I’m sure the, “I’m not an alcoholic, though” mentality kept this third of people drinking, and thus sliding toward chronic illness.

I used to think that the answer was to de-stigmatize the word “alcoholic.” But now, I’m just not sure that’s possible. We learn at a very young age that an “alcoholic” is a bad or sad thing to be.

When I was around 12, I remember my father describing being a non-drinking alcoholic as like “always having a stone in your shoe” and I thought, ”That sounds terrible! Must make sure I never become an alcoholic and thus have to quit drinking.” And so, in my fertile teenage brain, a story took root that quitting drinking was an utterly undesirable thing. A notion was planted that I must not become an alcoholic.

From films and TV, we learn that recovery involves a lifetime of constant craving, of strained, if occasionally darkly humored recovery meetings. Of gazing longingly at whiskey when alone. Of fighting our “true nature” by choosing to order sparkling water instead.

But actually, this isn’t remotely the universal experience of being sober. And it certainly hasn’t been mine. Whenever I walk past a pub and catch a whiff of wine, as I did an hour ago, I feel a shiver of recoil, not a snap of desire. Drinking was not my natural, intended state; sober is.

“Am I an alcoholic?”

I’d say the most common thing to do in the year before quitting booze is to hunch over a laptop and miserably type, Am I an alcoholic? into Google at 1 a.m. (in Incognito Mode, of course). I did it many, many times. Sometimes the internet told me I was, sometimes it told me I wasn’t.

I’d say the most common thing to do in the year before quitting booze is to hunch over a laptop and miserably type, Am I an alcoholic? into Google at 1 a.m. (in Incognito Mode, of course). I did it many, many times. Sometimes the internet told me I was, sometimes it told me I wasn’t.

I was only willing to contemplate an alcohol-free life if I was an alcoholic. Because I’d been told that only alcoholics quit drinking. However, I knew, deep down, that quitting drinking was my path to happiness. And yet, I didn’t want to be an alcoholic. Anything but that. So, that push-pull conflict powered my continued drinking.

A combination of being hopelessly addicted, and my resistance to the next “necessary” part of the narrative arc, kept me stuck in spiralling self-destruction. If I’d been given permission to quit without any sort of label, who knows, maybe I would have quit sooner, as I’ve now observed thousands of readers doing so. Maybe the black hole inside me wouldn’t have become so damn large that I was Googling “painless ways to kill self.”

Isn’t this process peculiar?

We’ve forgotten it is, because it’s become so normalized, just like drinking itself. No smoker hunches over a laptop and types in Am I a smokeaholic? before attempting to quit. They don’t wait until they’re smoking 40 packs a day or selling their furniture to buy cigarettes before they give being a non-smoker a whirl.

We’re told that calling yourself an alcoholic is crucial in order to quit. Yet millions of people successfully quit smoking, also a lethal addiction, without labeling themselves. Millions also go sugar-free without calling themselves “sugarholics”; vegetarians don’t have to come out as being “hamaholics” in order to wipe ham out of their lives. Need I go on?

In many ways, the divide between alcoholics and “normies” serves the alcohol industry beautifully. They don’t want you to quit. You don’t want to be an alcoholic. So, the circle perpetuates. They dangle moderation as an achievable goal when the reality is that hardly anyone can moderate. Alcohol is insanely addictive; almost everyone is, in some form, addicted to it.

Meanwhile, back in recovery land, we’re told that if you don’t adopt the mantle of “alcoholic” you’re sunk, or just about to sink. Your semantics-resisting is as insane as those rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. You’re going down. But if you say you’re an alcoholic, we’ll let you into a lifeboat, okay?

Not a Lifelong Affliction

If people ask me why I quit drinking, I now tend to say: “I was addicted to it. And found that I am much happier without it.” Note the past tense in my “was.” Because I am not currently addicted to alcohol.

This doesn’t mean that I think I’m now “fixed” and can now locate the El Dorado of moderation. Nah. No chance. I know full well that addiction lives on in my brain, like a rat scurrying around underneath a floorboard. But I was addicted to alcohol. I’m not now. I could be again. But I choose not to drink. That’s the bottom line.

I now think of myself as a retired hellraiser, a reformed boozehound, a freed prisoner, rather than somebody suffering from a lifelong affliction. You don’t have to call yourself anything in order to quit drinking. You can have experienced the scary grip of addiction, without having it define you for the rest of your days.

Alcohol is the same as any other addiction; it doesn’t need a special word. We should be able to leave addiction in our rear-view, and focus on the road ahead.

As Zadie Smith so neatly said, “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” Choose your own lexicon. You’re allowed to.

picture of a gender-non-binary person similing with the text, "Live Life Hangover Free"